A lot of emotions arise when a couple decides to work through the aftermath of an affair. Marriage should be a place of trust, security, and unconditional love but what happens when that trust is broken?
For the betrayed partner, it is a traumatic experience. There is no way around that. Their whole world, all of a sudden, has been flipped on its head. The trauma of an affair cannot and should not be minimized. The affair will likely change the quality of, interactions with, and intimacy of all current and future relationships for that partner. Steurer, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist we had on our latest podcast compared it to the feeling you would have after being mugged. He said, “you start to realize, oh, walking down the street isn’t safe anymore. I should probably be more careful”. After trusting someone so deeply and the vulnerability that comes with marriage, it’s no surprise that once that trust is broken their outlook on relationships changes.
The spouse having the affair is also experiencing an array of emotions. They are walking away from a double life and may feel guilty, embarrassed, or ashamed. Or they may feel regretful for getting caught, now that they are torn between the two worlds they have lived in simultaneously. They may want to save their marriage but have a competing attachment and now they have to consciously make a choice between their two worlds. This can be especially hard if they did not personally choose to end the affair but were “caught” and forced to make the decision.
It is agonizing to navigate the emotions of an affair and it’s tempting to want a quick fix. It’s painful to heal, as ironic as that sounds. There are sleepless nights, hard conversations, and work and family life suffers. Healing is all-consuming.
First of all, you have a betrayed partner who is dealing with the emotional pain of the affair, and then you have the betrayer that is used to living in a fantasy world. It’s easy to seek normalcy but take a minute to slow down. There are multiple stages of healing that should be addressed before jumping back into life. Don’t sell yourself short of the power of healing.
One of the first steps to healing is being honest.
Don’t Blame the Marriage
While marriages fall all across the spectrum for being good or bad you can’t blame a marriage for an affair. People choose to have affairs, marriages don’t. Being upfront and honest about the choice to have an affair is very important. The betrayed partner shouldn’t feel responsible for the actions of the unfaithful partner either. Blame can delay true healing; the unfaithful partner chose to have an affair to cope with whatever emotional problems or dissatisfaction they had in their relationship. They made the choice. Admit it, look at it, live with it. Let your partner see it, know it, and yes, feel it.
Once you’ve done that there is usually some sort of formal disclosure where the unfaithful partner makes a commitment and states which relationship they are going to pursue. If they choose to mend their marriage and end the affair, the affair needs to be ended cold turkey, no “one last goodbye”.
On the other hand, the betrayed partner is responsible for speaking up and voicing their concerns. They are in charge of their own emotional wellbeing and shouldn’t put that on their unfaithful partner. At first, they may feel incapacitated as they navigate the shock of this traumatic experience. They will likely need a lot of emotional support and maybe even physical support just to keep their life functioning. Setting rules or boundaries can help you interact in ways that are healthy and as calm as possible. This will help you keep your life functioning as you are seeking stability once again.
As the betrayed partner takes charge of their own emotions and is honest and the unfaithful partner takes accountability for their actions real stability can become a reality. Once stability is gained and things have settled a bit you are able to look at your marriage and say, “Okay, what kind of new marriage do I want to have? The old one wasn’t working”.
Secrets, Secrets, Are No Fun
A good place to start is by ridding yourself of secrets. Secrets within marriage are counterproductive to strengthening marriages. Physical or emotional secrets can be hurtful even if the purpose of the secret is to ‘save’ your husband or wife from heartache. Some common secrets relate to feelings and emotions. Do you ever withhold the whole truth about how you are feeling in different situations because you’re worried your spouse won’t be able to handle the truth? Do you hold in emotions because you’re “not supposed to be emotional”? Men and women alike can relate to these types of secrets.
Both men and women are allowed to have feelings and be emotional. Talking to your spouse about your needs, wants, and feelings is important. You don’t need to go through life pretending to be needless and wantless. If your spouse is being vulnerably honest about their feelings, needs, or wants, listen to them with grace and care, just as you hope they’d do for you.
Don’t Settle for Mediocrity
In marriage, we like to avoid bringing up our concerns because we worry that doing so will only make things worse. When we do this, we settle for mediocre stability that is beneath the privilege of what is possible within marriage. Many people grow up in homes where settling for this mediocrity by being needless is modeled or reinforced. Men may think that it’s their duty to make their wife happy and that their feelings or needs don’t matter; women may be raised to be needless and want less or vice versa.When we settle for mediocrity in order to keep the peace it can create a problem in terms of intimacy. You don’t want a face value intimacy where no one talks about their needs because it causes a false sense of security only adding to the problem. Speaking up about your needs or wants becomes scary because you don’t want to lose what you do have. When in fact, communicating, and having those hard or emotional conversations will build a true intimate connection that is so much better than the illusion of intimacy you had in your head.
“If you want to affair-proof your marriage…give your partner that part of you that is reserved just for them. The thoughts, the feelings, the fears, the worries, the hopes, the dreams, the embarrassments, all those things that we all deal with every single day” Geoff Steurer said. When you openly share within marriage it becomes this beautiful layer of vulnerability and openness that you can’t experience anywhere else.
Working through an affair almost forces you to have this experience of intense intimacy and openness, but you don’t have to go through an affair to have this experience. Any crisis you face as a couple can help cultivate an intense intimacy you’ve never experienced before. Whether that be a job loss, a loss of a child, an entrepreneurial venture, or the hardships of everyday life. It is your choice to turn toward your partner during these times and share your life with them.
Turning Towards Your Partner
If you’re at a loss about how to start turning toward your partner, the Gottman Institute can help. They teach that turning towards your partner starts with paying attention to bids. What are bids? “A bid is any attempt from one partner to another for attention, affirmation, affection, or any other positive connection. Bids show up in simple ways, a smile or wink, and more complex ways, like a request for advice or help. In general, women make more bids than men, but in the healthiest relationships, both partners are comfortable making all kinds of bids.”
Notice when your partner seeks your attention, show interest in them, ask questions as they speak, nod, listen, and put away your phone! Choose to turn towards your partner. As you foster intimacy with your spouse, it becomes something that nobody can take from you. It’s not fake, it’s not face value, it’s deep, and it’s meaningful.
To learn more about Geoff Stuerer visit his website. Geoff Stuerer also has a high-quality online course called Trust Building Bootcamp! “Learn to start building trust even if you’ve really messed things up.”
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Zach Brittle, LMHC. “Turn Towards Instead of Away.” The Gottman Institute, Https://Www.gottman.com State Your Needs, Be Aware of Bids for Connection and Turn towards Them., 13 Nov. 2020, www.gottman.com/blog/turn-toward-instead-of-away/.